Most who are familiar with the history of the reformation are aware of the famous slogan "always reformed, always reforming," or said another way, "the reformed church is always reforming," or for those who may be a bit highfalutin, snobby or otherwise desirous of impressing people with their immense learning "ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda." However you want to say it and whoever you want to impress, the point of the slogan is that the church is always to be reforming its doctrine and practice according to the Scriptures.
This is one of those things that sounds like a great idea until someone actually tries to do it.
Which is not to say that it shouldn't be done, or at least attempted. The problem is that inevitably, when someone tries to reform something, a groundswell of criticism emerges against said reformers to remind them that though "always reforming" is a great idea, this particular area that this particular person is trying to reform is inviolable and shouldn't be reformed.
Which is not to say that the critics of the "always reforming" types don't usually have a point. If the fifteenth and sixteenth century religious culture was overbalanced with a "we shall not be moved" mentality, our era is overbalanced with a mentality that says "we shall change and rearrange everything, everyday in every way." Many, mabye most, attempts at reforming are unnecessary or missing the point at best, and silly or harmful at worst. As the old saying goes "if I had a nickel for everytime I heard someone say they wanted to start a new reformation I'd be a rich man by now." OK, maybe it's not an old saying, but at least part of it is old.
Yet, silliness aside, the principle is an important one.
The principle of being always reforming is not stated explicitly in Scripture, rather it is one of those theological propositions that is deduced by good and necessary consequence. It is deduced from the Scriptural considerations that only the Scripture is infallible and that man is sinful. Thus, sinful man can study the Scriptures and summarize the Scriptures into everything from formal theological statements, to informal expressions of personal conviction, to guidelines for Christian living.
But, those human summaries, guidelines, and other assorted whatnot can never carry Scriptural authority. Because such things are formulated by men we always have to assume that, even though we're really very sure we're right about the things of which we speak, we could be wrong. "Always reforming" gives us a kind of safety valve or escape clause by which we ourselves, or later generations, can revisit or rethink what we said back in the day. "Always reforming" also honors the pre-eminent authority of Scripture and relativizes all other expressions of faith.
My personal opinion is that the principle of being "always reforming" is one of the goodest of the good and necessariest of the necessary consequences that have ever been deduced from Scripture. It protects the authority of Scripture and protects us against worshipping man-made objects.
But it is still one of those things that is good in theory but hard to put into practice.
I suppose I should qualify that last statement a bit. Its hard to put into practice for those who are from confessional traditions and for anyone who has a high view of tradition. Many of us don't think that tradition per se is a bad thing. When Jesus chastized the leaders of Jerusalem in this regard it wasn't because they held to traditions at all, it is because they replaced the authority of the Word of God with that of human traditions. Tradition is not evil in and of itself. If your tradition is to be faithful to the Word of God and if you have a tradition of always re-evaluating your traditions according to the Word of God, that's a good tradition.
But there are many in our day who are far more skeptical of tradition than us confessional types, so they wonder what all the fuss is about. Without an adherence to a confesssional tradition, everything can be up for grabs and they can change their interpretations and understandings of the Scripture without anxiety or remorse. Its us confessionalists who have the anxiety and the neurotic episodes when we talk about change.
The principle of being "always reforming" is so difficult for many reasons. Its one of those bedrock convictions that goes along with things like "Scripture alone," "faith alone," "grace alone," and "Christ alone." But if "always reforming" is a bedrock conviction along with the others does that mean that our views of Scripture, grace, faith and Christ are always in need of reform too?
I for one find such a notion hard to swallow as I think most of my friends do. Does the centrality of the Trinity need to be reformed? Does our view on the two natures of Christ need to be reformed?
While I'm intellectually on board with the idea of being "always reforming," in my heart/emotions I think I would be far more comfortable with a notion that is closer to "sometimes-sorta-kinda-reforming," but that'll never fly because there is no way you can get a catchy Latin phrase for that.
But that'll never fly for other reasons too. "Always reforming" can apply to those bedrock issues in the sense that we have yet to plumb the depths of any of those things. The last word has yet to be said about Scripture, about grace, about faith, about Christ, or about anything in Scripture. Neither the early church, nor the reformers nor their heirs have exhausted the knowledge that is availble in any of those areas. And of course, when it comes to the area of Christian practice no one has even come close to exhausted the application of any of those truths to life.
So, to be "always reforming" is a good principle to keep in mind at all times. We can and should affirm the great confessional statements on these matters, but we must realize that they haven't said all there is to be said. One of the characters in the Chronicles of Narnia (I think it was Reepicheep but I'm not sure) spoke of going to Aslan's land with the phrase "farther up and farther in." That's a good way of looking at the principle being always reforming.
There is another problem with this that is twofold and that shows itself in some modern attempts at reformation and some criticisms of modern attempts at reformation. Sometimes modern reformers aren't going further up and further in, they say we were going the wrong direction and want to go a different way altogether. That could be true, but such a notion ought to be looked at with the greatest suspicion.
Sometime last year I heard of one of the emergent leaders saying we needed to re-examine the teaching of the Trinity. This is a common criticism - many people in many centuries have argued against the orthodox expression of the Trinity saying that it owed more to philosophy than to the Bible. That's an example of going a different direction instead of going farther up and farther in. The bible is clear that God is One, and that God the Father is God, God the Son is God, and God the Holy Spirit is God. Any expression of the Trinity must affirm that there is only one God and that the three members of the Godhead are God. The three together make one God. If this leader is disagreeing with this then he has taken a different road and is misusing the notion of always reforming.
On the other hand, the critics of modern reformers can make the mistake of thinking that somenoe is going a different direction when really they are only going farther up and farther in. Sometimes, on the road into Aslan's country we make camp and the camp becomes very comfortable. So any attempt to break camp is seen to be a change of direction, when in fact it could be simply going farther up and farther in.
In the case of this emergent leader who wanted to re-examine the doctrine of the Trinity, I may have misread him. Many of our theoligical statements on the Trinity have borrowed philosophical terms like "substance" and "essence" and other words which may be or may have been helpful as pedagogical devices in communicating the doctrine of the Trinity, but which have outlived their usefulness. If someone wants to express the Biblical doctrine of the three-in-oneness of God without using some of those terms, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It could be a bad thing because there are some who are purposely slippery in their language in order to get others to make subtle but deadly changes of course. But its not a given that a change of language is a change of direction.
In the ongoing debate with the emerging church I think this is important for both sides. Those of us who are a little more on the critical side of things need to examine what the emergent folks are really saying. Are the changes they are making for the purpose of going further up and further in or for changing direction? I am not always sure, but a bit of reserve is in order before we jump to conclusions.
I am reminded of a discussion in seminary. Although Karl Barth may have been the most influential theologian of the last century he was not exactly given a hero's welcome in conservative circles. Yet, one of my profs pointed out that if you read articles in many of the theological journals in the 20's, 30's and 40's, particularly some of the reformed journals, you would have seen very measured responses to Barth. We were encouraged to do the same when it came to interacting with our opponents. While some in conservative circles spent their time vilifying Barth, others interacted with him issue by issue and point by point. Certainly Barth's opponents spoke out against his views when they concluded he was in error, but they didn't presuppose that Barth was wrong because Barth said it, or wasn't talking their language.
So, there is some wisdom in that. It is obvious that our friends in emergent circles are pushing for reform and I hear and read things from time to time that trouble me. But we do need to listen carefully before we react. We need to examine if the reforms they are pushing for are along the lines of farther up and farther in or a change of direction. The fact that new words are being used and new ideas are being offered doesn't mean that a change of direction is being advocated, we may just be getting pushed farther up and farther in.
And to any who advocate reform I would pose the same challenge - to declare whether or not you are going farther up and farther in or changing directions. Every reformer assumes they are doing the former when they may be doing the latter. It may not be a bad thing if you are doing the latter - we really may be on the wrong road and need a change of direction. But if you conclude that this is the case I would urge caution and counsel.
If you think a change in direction is needed I would remember the counsel of C. S. Lewis. He points out that in times past (whenever that was) people would be open to the new but biased toward the old. In other words, the old ways had proven themselves over time and could be trusted. The old was assumed to be true unless proven otherwise. The older things had a track record by which you could evaluate them, new things and ideas didn't. Thus, change and reform and progress were possible and desirable, but they had to overcome a bias in favor of the old.
In our day things are reversed. There is a bias toward the new. Some of the old ways aren't to be trusted simply because they are old ways. But this is a mistake. The old ways have track records by which they can be evaluated, the only way to evaluate new things and ideas is in terms of hopes and promises which can't be verified. And please don't misunderstand me - that last statement can be taken to mean that nothing new should ever be tried. I don't mean that. Sometimes the track record of the old ways verifies that they are untrue or aren't working and so you have to step out on faith into something new. But I just think the better part of wisdom is to be careful and cautious before jettisoning the old.
But the bottom line is that "always reforming" is a good principle. It's a difficult principle to apply, fraught with danger on all sides, but the dangers shouldn't prevent us from trying to apply it.